With late-season surge, Blast showing playoff form after overcoming 'growing pains'

Water bottle in hand as he jogged off the field after the third quarter Sunday, Blast goalie William Vanzela playfully squirted teammate Vini Dantas.

Caught off guard, Dantas seemed a bit annoyed at first, only to have Vanzela squirt him a second time. He shook it off and two stars headed to the bench with smiles.

The Blast had the game in hand against the Mississauga MetroStars and would soon be on their way to closing out the home portion of the regular-season schedule with another victory, 9-2, at Towson University’s SECU Arena.

It made it six straight wins for the three-time defending Major Arena Soccer League champions and two over a weekend set in which they allowed just three goals.

After an uncharacteristically rocky 9-6 start, the Blast are 15-6, tied with Utica City FC for first place in the Eastern Division with three road games left before defending their championship.

“Yes, 9-6 is unusual for us,” said midfielder Jonatas Melo, who leads the team with 36 points. “But we had a lot of new faces so we just had to make sure everybody got on the same page and we’re still a work in process. But this has made us stronger.”

The Blast, who have reached the championship round each of the past eight seasons with four titles in that span, always look to their experienced players to teach the rookies the team’s structured system. This season, the team has seven new players, which made for a longer learning curve. The mistakes that occurred early in the season have methodically been erased with more efficient play as the new players adapt and the standout players hit their playoff form.

On Sunday, captain Tony Donatelli (three goals, one assist) led a balanced attack as nine players recorded a point. Eight of the Blast’s nine goals came off assists, and communication on defense has been evident with two goals or fewer allowed in the past three wins.

“Whenever you’re integrating new guys in the lineup, there’s always going to be some growing pains. There was never any panic,” Blast coach Danny Kelly said. “On the inside, we knew what was going on. Again, we got to continue to get better and continue to work and continue to see what the new guys can give us.”

Vanzela, who made several big saves Sunday, was quick to credit the teammates playing in front of him.

“We have five guys behind the ball, so our defense is so much stronger right now,” he said. “It’s not coming from me, it’s coming from the players who are putting in the work in front of me. So when you look at the scoreboard and you see we gave up three goals in two games at home, which is such a small field, the team has been doing a fantastic job of preventing the chances.”

glenn.graham@baltsun.com

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